'Tampa 2' is NFL's worst-kept secret
'Tampa 2' is NFL's worst-kept secret
The Buccaneers' pass-coverage schemeis becoming popular around the league.
Alan Schmadtke | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 29, 2006
Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy laughs. His NFL defenses have been on videotape -- all available for dissection -- for nearly two decades now.
What works, what wins -- it's all out there for the eyes to see, for others to copy.
There are no secrets.
"No secrets at all," Dungy said. "We all talk and joke about it, but there are no secrets. . . . It's fundamental. It's a fast, aggressive defense."
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin doesn't laugh. He stares at the ground with a slight grimace and a small pause. How do you lie without telling a lie?
"We like to share things with college coaches, high school coaches," Kiffin said. "I like to help guys, but you can't give out too much. You try to keep things pretty tight."
Bucs linebacker coach Joe Barry smiles. He wasn't around when Dungy and Kiffin concocted the NFL's trendiest defense. Back then, in the early 1990s, he wasn't part of the family. Then, five years ago, Barry was invited in when he was hired by the Bucs.
Under Kiffin (who worked for Dungy), the Bucs tweaked a pass-coverage scheme and came up with what is known as the "Tampa 2." Under Kiffin (by then working for Jon Gruden), the Bucs won a Super Bowl with it.
Barry hasn't seen the original drawings, but he knows the architects and has blueprints. But that's as far as he'll go.
"We definitely get bombarded with questions," Barry said. "College [coaching] friends of mind, high school, even the NFL. When we're at the Senior Bowl and at the [Draft] Combine, they try to pick your brain. But we have to be very careful as coaches in the system not to let the secrets out of the family."
Soon, the "Tampa 2" family might not have many secrets. The number of NFL clubs that prefer the scheme has doubled from three to six.
What is the "Tampa 2"? And why is it so popular?
The "Tampa 2" is the Dungy/Kiffin version of an age-old zone pass coverage, the "Cover 2," which every team in the NFL uses in some form. In the "Cover 2," one safety is responsible for the left half of the secondary, the other for the right half.
Bud Carson fell in love with it when he headed Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense in the 1970s. What Dungy discovered as a safety with the Steelers is that the scheme, when played correctly and aggressively, makes a group of defensive backs better than the best cover man by himself.
When Dungy coordinated Minnesota's defenses in the early 1990s, he and Kiffin added a twist: a linebacker to run the field vertically. That helped take away the middle of the field, the area offenses try to exploit in two-deep coverage.
The current popularity of the "Tampa 2" stems from what we'll call the "Hollywood Factor," where blockbusters beget sequels. Defensive turnarounds in Tampa, Indy and Chicago could not be ignored.
"This is a copy-cat league," said Jacksonville secondary coach Dave Campo, who had a top-10 defense with the "Tampa 2" in his years as Dallas coach. "If somebody's winning games, everybody else is going to take note of what they're doing -- and they're more likely to try it."
Last season the Bucs led the NFL in total defense. No. 2 was Chicago, which runs the "Tampa 2" under Coach Lovie Smith, a former Dungy assistant with the Bucs. Dungy's Colts were 11th. All three were playoff teams.
When new Minnesota Coach Brad Childress made former Bucs secondary coach Mike Tomlin his defensive coordinator, the Vikings converted to the "Tampa 2."
Ditto in Detroit, which hired former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to be its new coach.
In Buffalo, new Coach Dick Jauron hired Perry Fewell as his defensive coordinator. Fewell learned the "Tampa 2" in Chicago under Smith.
It's enough to make a grown man cry.
"I hate to see it spreading around the league," Kiffin said. "For a while, we were the only ones out there running 'Tampa 2.' It was like the Wishbone. Teams didn't see it every week so they weren't used to preparing for it. Now more and more teams are trying [it]."
Other reasons for the scheme's popularity: Players say it's easy to learn and coaches believe they can win without having All-Pro linebackers and defensive backs.
"I've played in four or five systems," said Bucs nickelback Juran Bolden, a nine-year veteran in his second season with Tampa Bay. "It's pretty complicated sometimes, but in other aspects it's not. Everybody has an area, and everybody has to run to the ball every play. If you ask me, that's the key."
"Tampa 2" has not made converts of everybody. Fact is, nobody talked about the "Tampa 2" when New England won three Super Bowls playing a multi-purpose 3-4.
Some coaches see it as "soft" and some don't like it because it limits blitz possibilities.
When Dungy and Kiffin refined the "Tampa 2," one of their first conversations outside their meeting room was with the Bucs' player-personnel department. There, they outlined the kinds of players needed for each position.
Valuing speed, quickness and agility over size was one tenet, a history of ball-hawking another. (One college coach said the Bucs, in their pre-draft evaluations, gave extra credit to college players who had a string of intangibles such as fumbles caused or fumbles recovered -- statistics that indicated they had a knack for being around the football.)
Because the "Tampa 2" is grounded in "Cover 2" fundamentals, which most players see in college, the learning curve is mild. Coaches appreciate that.
"With free agency nowadays, guys come in and out," Smith said. "You need something players can adjust to fairly quick, and I know this system allows that."
"This system" uses holistic teaching: Linebackers learn what safeties are doing, and vice versa.
"Here, they teach you total defense," said Bucs linebacker Jamie Winborn, who signed in the offseason. "They teach you where your help is and where it isn't. Sometimes you feel like you're out there in no-man's land, but once you understand the safety has your guy, you don't feel so bad. You look over and get his guy."
Winborn would share more but, well, he can't. "I can't give up all the secrets," he said.
Proponents of the "Tampa 2" say it's like any plan in the game at any level: It's only as good as the players who play it on a given day.
"Two reasons the 'Tampa 2' works so well in the NFL and is harder to run in college is the predictability of offenses in the NFL and the fact you rarely have to defend the quarterback," said a former NFL defensive assistant who's now in college ball.
In Indianapolis, Dungy said he doesn't mind talking specifics when he sees Kiffin and others in the "Tampa 2" family because, he said, every "Tampa 2" is a bit different. "These guys have all added to it, given it their tweaks, put their stamp on it," Dungy said. "When I say there are no secrets, there are a couple. But everybody knows what they are. It's just getting the players to buy into it and getting the right players to play hard and play fast."
And, if possible, to keep their mouths shut.
Jags' Jones out for yearD3
Re: 'Tampa 2' is NFL's worst-kept secret
This has always seemed to me to be the central component of the Tampa 2. The MLB not only must essentially run the defence on the field and have great communication skills, but just as importantly he must work very well in coverage.
'Tampa 2' is NFL's worst-kept secret
When Dungy coordinated Minnesota's defenses in the early 1990s, he and Kiffin added a twist: a linebacker to run the field vertically
. That helped take away the middle of the field, the area offenses try to exploit in two-deep coverage.
I have this picutre in my mind of Urlacher making a monumental leap for an interception last year. Hopefully we'll see Harris doing some of the same.